Upon hearing his diagnosis with polio, Franklin Roosevelt in FDR American Badass! is uninterested in the fact that his legs are paralyzed. He has only one urgent question [0:20 in the trailer]. The answer is yes – “Nurse has run some tests” – and like the badass he is, FDR responds “So why are you all looking so down then?”
This is of course a film – a bad one in the tradition of The Naked Gun, chummy, silly, cheap in every way. Nonetheless, in real life many people have also wondered about Roosevelt’s sexual potency following his disease. Apparently his cock did still work, and the tales about his sexual promiscuity tend not only to contribute to the positive assessment of Roosevelt as a man of flesh and blood, but also as further proof of his masculinity.
Because for most cultural artefacts representing Roosevelt (then as now) the combination of disability and (wartime) presidency remains uneasy. Christina Jarvis in her monograph The Male Body at War: American Masculinity during World War II (2004), shows how being able-bodied was a central tenet of masculinity in the early 1940s, and has been so since. The other obvious cultural sign of – and prerequisite for – masculinity is the presence of a working penis. Roosevelt could sport only the latter. And so he is rather exaggeratedly portrayed as vigorous in the penis arena, both in a silly film about Nazi-werewolves and in more portentous accounts of his love life.
This phallic concern sits well with another aspect of Roosevelt representation that I have mentioned here before. Practically any film/biography/novel about FDR sets out to uncover the mystery at the heart of this enigmatic man. One reason why he remains so popular is that there is still a sense that there is an undiscovered secret about him that keeps eluding us. And what else would one hope and expect to find at the core of a public figure’s (or anyone’s) private existence?